In 1984, NBC’s Nightly News anchor, Tom Brokaw, traveled to the Normandy beaches to witness the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. He was enormously touched, admiring the sterling qualities of the many survivors present. These individuals, who were mostly born in the first quarter of the 20th century, had survived the bleak times of the Great Depression before dutifully defending not only our nation but also Western civilization in fighting the evil forces of Nazism and fanatic Japanese nationalism. Brokaw came home and later wrote a book, dubbing those wartime heroes “the Greatest Generation.” The label stuck.
The Greatest Generation was known for its patriotism, its fierce “can-do” work ethic, its honesty and integrity, its sense of kindness and community spirit, and its modesty. The people of this generation respected and supported their parents and grandparents in old age and were devoted spouses and parents themselves. They defined the American exceptionalism that was so triumphant in the middle of the 20th century.
Fast forward several decades. How would we characterize those born later, roughly in the second half of the 20th century? While various labels have been used to describe later generations, such as the baby boomers (born 1945–1965), Generation X (1965–1980), or even millennials (1980–1995), it strikes me that the individuals leading America today would be better dubbed “the Most Selfish Generation.”
Many Americans today, contrary to the path laid out for them by the Greatest Generation, try to maximize their own pleasure and immediate satisfaction at the expense of others, including their own elderly parents and their children and grandchildren. They also denigrate American exceptionalism in international affairs by largely abandoning a commitment to promoting democratic values and the growth-inducing free-market principles that motivated their ancestors in the Greatest Generation.
The ultimate failure of young adults today is that they have lost the willingness, if not the ability, to perpetuate American life through the most fundamental of all human responsibilities, reproducing itself to provide for future generations.
Below are seven deficiencies that show Americans’ inability to match the achievements of the Greatest Generation.
In the 21 years from the first full year of the George W. Bush administration (fiscal year 2002) through today, the U.S. government has not balanced its budget once. This is the longest sustained period of deficit financing in American history, leading to a rise in the gross national debt to about 125 percent of total output. This is higher than it was at the end of the war fought by the Greatest Generation. Contrast that to the period 1900–1930. This is the time when the Greatest Generation was born, grew up, and reached early adulthood. The federal government ran budget surpluses in 20 of those 31 years. During the Roaring Twenties, the national debt declined by one-third, as Presidents Warren Harding and especially Calvin Coolidge worked assiduously to reduce the debt burden.
Why is this important? The national debt is a burden on future generations — individuals who over the next several decades will have to pay bondholders who lent money to the federal government. Today’s Most Selfish Generation is imposing an enormous burden on future Americans. As interest rates move from abnormal lows (owing to the Federal Reserve’s manipulation efforts to lower them) to rates more consistent with economic reality and true-time preferences (people wanting things now rather than later), the interest payments on the debt due annually can be expected to soar shortly — I would conservatively estimate by $600 billion annually. This means higher taxes, reduced government spending, and/or the printing of money to pay off the debt (creating huge inflation). Future generations will feel fiscal pain, and, if modern-day fiscal irresponsibility continues, it likely will also mean that the U.S. dollar’s primacy as the world’s leading currency will be imperiled, and, with it, our planetary economic leadership.
While formal budget documents of the federal government show that the U.S. has a gross national debt of about $31 trillion, that does not count a much-larger amount of unfunded liabilities — promises made for which funds are not adequately available. Some place the value of all federally promised future obligations, including the $31 trillion in official debt, at over $100 trillion — not much less than the total wealth of all households in the U.S. The most famous of these underfunded obligations is Social Security, but medical-care underfunding (e.g., Medicare) is even larger, and the meager trust funds intended to provide for these programs are going to be gone within a decade or so without significant alterations.
Politicians don’t want to endanger their political future by enacting major tax hikes (i.e., larger payroll taxes) or reductions in promised benefits (e.g., by raising the Social Security retirement age), so things fester and fiscal Armageddon is nearing. The Social Security and Medicare trustees in their 2022 annual report predicted that the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance program would run out of cash in 2034 — less than a dozen years from now. Today’s generation is quite directly endangering the future of their parents, as well as themselves and their children, by their fiscal irresponsibility. The elimination of the trust funds would force very significant reductions in Social Security benefits.
No one in Congress in either party has pushed to solve this problem because any solution would require pain for large numbers of voters — reduced benefits, higher taxes, higher retirement age, etc. The occupational security of a few hundred politicians is taking precedence over the financial security of tens of millions of citizens.
Over the centuries, we have moved from a society where material success was importantly determined by physical strength and endurance to one where human knowledge and cognitive skills are of paramount importance. Less than a generation passed from the landing of the Mayflower in Massachusetts in 1620 to the creation of America’s first institution of higher education, Harvard College. Today, a majority of the top universities in international rankings still are in America. Yet there is considerable evidence that acquiring knowledge may be in absolute decline in America, and it is certainly declining relative to other ascending nations such as China or India.
The national average ACT composite score in 2022 was 19.8, the first time in over 30 years that it was less than 20. Over 40 percent of test takers failed to meet any of the minimal benchmarks that predict positive future college performance. On the most comprehensive international educational assessment, the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. students on average perform less well than those in over a dozen other jurisdictions, including major Asian nations like Japan and South Korea, European nations such as Poland and Germany, and neighboring Canada.
The pandemic demonstrated the power of adults in teachers unions to put their personal preferences above the educational needs of the children under their tutelage, but the problem predates the pandemic and reflects the negative effects of downplaying core academic knowledge in order to pursue progressive woke agendas. And the problem is not confined to primary and secondary education: Time-use data show, for example, that the average number of hours college students spend on academics has declined precipitously since the 1960s (to a point that the average college student now spends under 30 hours weekly studying — for maybe 32 weeks a year). Grade inflation plays an important role: We don’t want to reduce students’ self-esteem by leading them to think that they are a failure or less than perfect in school.
In the first month of the century, January 2000, about 65 out of every 100 Americans of working age were employed, compared with only slightly over 60 today. If we had the same proportion of Americans working today as we had in 2000, we would have about 11 million more workers today. We would not have problems with supply shortages and probably would be able to reduce skyrocketing prices. In the middle of the 20th century, we emphasized the value and importance of work; today we speak more about “work-life balance.” While it is natural that as a population becomes more prosperous, it wishes to increase leisure activities (for example, more vacation time), America is increasingly looking at work as a necessary annoyance, not a critical building block of a vital economy.
The horrific murder of George Floyd in May 2020 led to an escalation in rioting, looting, and further violence that has become increasingly obvious. Nationwide, not only did the homicide rate rise in 2020, but also the rate of lesser crimes, such as shoplifting, is increasing. One major retailer, Target, even blamed shoplifting in part for its recent disappointing earnings. Widespread homelessness and disgusting sanitary conditions seldom seen today even in third-world countries have made life in America’s cities extremely unpleasant. Recent press reports document this. An Axios article from fall 2022, for example, says that Philadelphia “is on pace to eclipse last year’s homicide record. Plus, overall violent crime is surging, and robberies have more than doubled compared to this time in 2021.”
Moreover, if anything, crime statistics may be understated in areas where police budgets have been slashed or enforcement reduced by progressive prosecutors. A couple of recent Portland, Oregon, headlines are illuminating. Fox Business reported on Nov. 17, 2022, that a “Nike store location in Portland, Oregon, has been closed for weeks after an increase in theft crimes, and there is no indication when it will reopen.” A few days earlier, the local Fox television channel (Fox 12) headlined an article “City of Portland struggling with rampant property crime.” It added, “Thousands of property crimes … are going unsolved, with no punishment for the criminals that commit them.” A similar story can be told in countless other cities. (READ MORE: See How Bad Gavin Newsom Let Crime Get in California)
The rule of law has been fundamental to America’s economic success since the vast majority of the citizenry has voluntarily been law-abiding, reducing the cost of risks associated with enforcing business contracts. Indeed, the success of Britain’s Industrial Revolution and America’s subsequent replication and expansion of it can largely be explained by a legal framework dating back to the Magna Carta (1215) that is based around private-property rights that encourage honesty, enterprise, innovation, and hard work.
But the problem goes beyond law enforcement. The public’s respect for laws and rules of behavior has undergone a sharp decline. Take religious commandments. Gallup showed that, in the Great Depression year of 1937, one of the formative years of most of the Greatest Generation, 73 percent of Americans had membership in churches, synagogues, or mosques. The number remained fairly steady until the end of the 20th century, standing at 70 percent in 1999. In this century, however, there has been a steady and substantial decline so that currently only a minority (47 percent) of the population is involved in a church, synagogue, or a mosque. People are less likely to respect such Ten Commandment admonitions as “Thou shall not kill” or “Thou shall not steal” if one has not been rigorously taught religious and secular rules, laws, and even commandments.
The Greatest Generation’s most memorable achievement is that it saved the world from tyranny and genuine evil, as demonstrated by such atrocities as the Holocaust. After World War II, the U.S. engaged in substantial aid to ravaged European countries through bipartisan efforts such as the Marshall Plan, as well as through the creation of a collective security framework with NATO. Contrast that to 21st-century American behavior. Speaking in 2012 of the deplorable behavior of the still-reigning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Barack Obama said, “[A] red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” The “red line” was crossed, Syrian behavior remained outrageous, and al-Assad still rules today. Similarly, for two decades, Afghanistan depended on American military support to minimize the deprecations that the Taliban and related militant groups used to terrorize or mistreat its people. For example, it prevented women from receiving an education. President Joe Biden precipitously ended that long-standing support, and Afghanistan has apparently largely reverted to a dreary feudal past under a resurgent Taliban. American commitments are fewer and are kept less rigorously. This has led to growing skepticism that the U.S. is truly the policeman and protector of the world from the unspeakable horrors of malevolent leaders.
The American Dream was built on the concept that everyone, regardless of income, national heritage, race, gender, or other biological attributes, could succeed. Success depended on excellence, doing things better than others. The one huge exception to this for a quarter of a millennium was that black Americans were enslaved or otherwise discriminated against, the vestiges of which have been diminishing but are still present in modern times. America had a high degree of intergenerational income mobility built around merit. Now, concerns about historically based inequalities have spawned a “new racism,” where much attention is given to the biological attributes of individuals (including race, gender, ethnicity, and even sexual preferences) rather than to their character and productivity. It’s an age where “diversity, equity, and inclusion” Gestapos try to evaluate people on the basis of something other than their productive attributes as entrepreneurs, hard workers, prodigious savers, inventors, good students, and so on. To provide a few examples, colleges increasingly are not asking for test information on the potential academic performance of future students, and businesses are clamoring for favored racial minorities.
The most fundamental task of each generation is to replicate itself so that the human race does not become extinct. Having a sizable generation of younger Americans is critical to providing the human resources necessary to sustain our children and also our senior citizens, who cannot responsibly be expected to “earn their daily bread” after, say, the age of 70. Yet birth rates are plummeting in America, and many Americans not only practice birth control but support relatively liberal laws regarding aborting unborn children.
For many modern young American couples, children are an annoying intrusion to be avoided, what economists call “negative externalities.” They force some parents to quit their jobs and to forgo nice cars, vacation homes, fancy trips, and other amenities. Modern technology has made it possible to derive sexual satisfaction with no annoying possibility of children.
The implications of this for America are ominous. In the age of the Greatest Generation, say 1960, we had about 6.6 working-age Americans for every person over the age of 65. Today we have only 3.8 and that is falling steadily, perhaps to below three by 2050. The burden of caring for our older population is getting sharply higher. Will we meet this easily, or will we embrace solutions today considered immoral, such as effectively euthanizing some senior citizens? To be sure, this is a worldwide problem, and birth rates are even lower today in many other industrialized countries. But the burden of an aging population is real. We have our first octogenarian president, and many of our political leaders are about as old. Two U.S. senators, Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, will be 90 on their next birthday. The Most Selfish Generation may become the Geriatric Generation.
Others could offer other deficiencies to my seven points. For example, the increase in planetary temperatures potentially poses a threat to human life on our planet, although I think those believing that greatly underestimate the adaptability of humans to change. Indeed, adaptability perhaps can mitigate some of the problems raised above. For example, there has been a rise in labor-force participation among the elderly.
This largely critical and pessimistic account ignores an American strength of overcoming adversity and rising to challenges. George Washington set the tone for the American “can-do” spirit with his remarkable rallying of troops at Valley Forge in 1777, ultimately overcoming the numerically superior British. America tore itself apart in the Civil War of the 1860s but put itself back together stronger than ever, becoming the world’s largest economy. An attack on America at Pearl Harbor in 1941 led to the most extraordinary mobilization of resources in world history and an overwhelming victory less than four years later. Similarly, the 2001 terror attacks on our nation have not been repeated and our way of life has returned to normal. Can we do it again? Will the Most Selfish Generation morph into something better and more magnanimous?